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Guy Ritchie doing what Guy Ritchie does best, this is a rollicking, smart and often times hilarious caper film. The cast is fantastic, Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) personifies the modern meld of sexy and capable, the soundtrack rocks from the opener and Hugh Grant, who I used to deride as a pouty, hair flipping, mincing one-trick pony, shows why he is perhaps one of the best character/lead actors around.

On Hulu, Amazon Prime.

The Top Five Nicolas Cage Yelling Scenes in Movies

I had never seen this movie in its entirety, only clips (“MY HAND!!!!” and “Snap out of it”) or a few scenes.  It’s a charming film, made more so by funny and smart performances all around.  Every character, save for John (scene stealer) Mahoney, is an old country-linked Italian in 1980s Brooklyn, so I expected broadly comic, and there are some such scenes.  But for the most part, the film eschews “Mama Mia!” and instead, provides opportunity for Cher, Nicholas Cage (his weird instincts and passion are transfixing), Danny Aiello, Olympia Dukakis, Vincent Gardenia, William Hickey and others for a little introspection, some intelligent mugging, some surprising underplaying, and some truly tender moments. 

The picture feels almost like a long-running and beloved stage play.  I guess that makes sense, given it was written my renowned playwright John Patrick Shanley (“Doubt”).  Shanley snatched the Oscar for best original screenplay, and while I would have gone with Broadcast News, I’m okay with it. 

At 102 minutes, the film is also a shining exemplar of economy.  I laughed, I cried, and I didn’t need to go to the bathroom. 

Currently on Showtime.    

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This film is now on the HBO rotation and I surprised myself when I realized I hadn’t reviewed it. It is an exceptional picture, a crisp and intelligent thriller.

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is an attorney at a prestigious corporate law firm. But he’s no legal eagle. Rather, he’s a “fixer “, a guy who can get you a heads up on an indictment or bail out the son of a big client for a drunk and disorderly. Clayton also happens to be a gambling addict with a host of debts.  This is Clooney’s best role. There’s not a hint of his bankable but often annoying, self-satisfied “you know, I’m acting” grin.

His entire persona aligns with the disappointments of his endeavors. As a fixer, he is anything but glamorous or intrepid. When called to the home of a major corporate client after being oversold by his managing partner, Clayton has to firmly tell the man (who has just fled the scene of a hit-and-run after drinking and likely engaging in infidelity) that his talents are pretty pedestrian — the client needs a good criminal lawyer and Clayton “likes” someone local for the job. When the fuming and underwhelmed client taunts Clayton with, “A miracle worker. That’s Walter on the phone twenty minutes ago. Direct quote, okay, ‘Hang tight, I’m sending you a miracle worker’”, his response is a summation of his self-worth: “Well he misspoke . . . There’s no play here. There’s no angle. There’s no champagne room. I’m not a miracle worker, I’m a janitor. The math on this is simple. The smaller the mess the easier it is for me to clean up.“

Clayton’s game is poker, which, of course it is, because it is the only game where the winner can take your money and humiliate you in the process.  

Still, Clayton maintains a resolute decency and innocence as he is enveloped by a conspiracy involving the law firm’s largest client, its’ ambitious and single-minded general counsel (Tilda Swinton) and the firm’s mercurial wiz litigator (Tom Wilkinson), who  goes off his meds and imperils both the corporation and the firm. Clooney is almost pathetic as he feigns sophistication while asking the firm’s managing partner if, in fact, there is something truly insidious about the corporation. A perfectly cast Sydney Pollack replies, “This is news? This case reeked from day one. Fifteen years in I gotta tell you how we pay the rent?“

This is a legal thriller that more than meets both bars. The story is engrossing and writer-director Tony Gilroy must have spent some time in a modern law firm, because he has the milieu, the patter, and the casual arrogance of the place down cold. Big time law firms are funny places, populated by very smart people who convince themselves they are priests, and damned if they don’t attract their own sort of worshipful congregations.

Nominated for Best Picture in 2007, unfortunately for Gilroy and the film, the same year as No Country for Old Men.

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I don’t think that there is a series of movies I enjoy more. Like The Trip (to the North of England), and The Trips to Spain and Italy, taking a road sightseeing and culinary tour with Rob Brydon Steve Coogan is edifying and hilarious. More than a travelogue, Michael
Winterbottom’s films are studies in culture, cuisine and history, through the eyes of two very smart and silly narcissists, the kind of friends who probably only see each other once or twice a year but effortlessly fall into the same knowing patter. It is easy to settle in to watch their conversation and one-up imitations (both actors are skilled impressionists and constantly battle each other with competing bits).  Each man is the only important audience member.   Restaurant and hotel staff and lunch and dinner guests run the gamut from confused to overwhelmed to a tad put-off. However, as the films have progressed, Winterbottom increasingly allows family and romantic situations to enter, often with poignant results, particularly here. Beautiful film.

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Taika Waititi’s children’s fable is a wondrous achievement, a beautiful story of the primacy of love in an era of hate, and a rare edifying film that can be enjoyed and appreciated equally by parents and children.  The year is 1944, and JoJo is a zealous member of the Hitler Youth at a time when for Nazi Germany, the end is nigh.  So complete is JoJo’s fealty to National Socialism that he has an imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler himself (Waititi), who guides him through the insults and indignities of adolescence while keeping JoJo’s eyes on the greater menace.  For Jo Jo, the former includes being a weakling in his Hitler Youth contingent, a deceased sister, and a missing father.  The latter is the omni-presence of true vampires in his daily life, said vampires being Jews.  Until JoJo realizes that not only does he have his own Anne Frank in residence, but his mother (Scarlett Johannson) is not the committed Nazi he once revered.

There are traces of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom in Waititi’s parable, and even a little bit of Roberto Begnigni’s Life is Beautiful, but the kitsch and pathos of those films are muted.  The Nazis are broadly comic, from the disaffected leaders of Jo Jo’s Hitler Youth squad (Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen) to the local Gestapo (Stephen Merchant), to Hitler himself, a gossipy, anachronistic cartoon of a cohort who engages a brain-washed JoJo in the manner of a Valley Girl on Snapchat.

Waititi has a deft touch with child actors, a skill shown here as well as in his hilarious and moving The Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  He depicts them not as precious or wise beyond their years, but rather, as they are, low on guile and high on instinct and snap judgment.  Even in his film What We Do In The Shadows, Waititi treats his characters (New Zealand vampires who are the subject of an MTV-esque “The Real World”) as silly teens (though they are, of course, thousands of years old), negotiating house tensions, competition with werewolves, and the internet with easy hurt and immediate wonder.  The results are always piercingly funny and clever.

Critics either explicitly or implicitly evince discomfort at the use of Hitler for such silly purposes (“a sugary fantasy in the most unlikely places…But in the process, it buries the awful truth” or “Waititi’s silly, irreverent performance takes the pomp and vigor out of the blustering Fuhrer, declawing the towering 20th century figure of hate. However, in doing so, he declaws his own satire, too”).  These takes are both unsurprising and depressingly easy, but if you think Hitler is simply too monstrous to lampoon, you are forewarned.

Even if it is a bridge too far, I strongly recommend you traverse it.  This is a beautiful, satisfyingly quirky coming of age film, natural and notable for its sweetness.  I’m not sure if it was the best film of last year, but it is the one I enjoyed best.

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A touching and heartfelt tribute to a matriarch.  Smart, deep and without an ounce of treacle, this is the holiday movie you should watch instead of the grotesque Love, Actually.  Upon hearing of the terminal cancer diagnosis for her Nai Nai (grandmother), Billi (Awkwafina), who left China when she was seven, returns from New York with her family (along with other family members from abroad) to say their goodbyes.  The twist is that, per custom, no one can reveal the diagnosis so as not to upset Nai Nai in her final months.  Indeed, Billi, a struggling student who has just been rejected for a fellowship, was specifically asked not to make the trip because her parents thought she was too emotional and incapable of adhering to the compact.

What follows is a loving and funny rendering of Billi’s family as well as her own immersion into Chinese culture and the clash that comes with it.  First time writer-director Lulu Wang’s second feature is confident and multi-layered, and her visual sense, depicting China in an almost dreamlike state, emphasizes Billi’s trepidation and confusion.  The film is also slyly funny, capturing the idiosyncratic bond of family that survives no matter the time apart or the geographical separation.  One of the best of the year.

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A beautiful, creative meditation on what home is, what your place is, and how it can become foreign, lost or taken right under your feet, the picture is subversively political without one overt pronouncement. Writer-director Joe Talbot’s first time feature is so assured and deeply thought out, it is astounding.

Jimmy, a native San Franciscan, reclaims his boyhood home in the city after the owners vacate in an estate dispute, which he has been surreptitiously tending to for years.   He just moves in. His bond is familial and aesthetic, as much to the house as the city, which has transformed right under his feet.  The house stands in for the community which becomes fractured and fungible, but community is never what you thought it really was.

This is an art film, but it is linear and focused. Moving and audacious, Talbot is a massive talent. I hope they give him an Avengers franchise.

Yea, that may be against the grain and ethos of the film, but he can still do art films!

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A gut-busting, loose re-make of Superbad, this time with girls (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever standing in for Jonah Hill and Michael Cera). It’s hard to overpraise the chemistry these two have, which enhances the laughter that comes in the set pieces as well as the seams.  This is their movie, and the bond and brilliance is evident form the first time we see them together.

They’re supported by a troupe of high school classmates so smartly drawn and crisply written, the whole “graduation night blowout” endeavor feels fresh. First-time director Olivia Wilde not only has an effortless command of pace and movement, but she also dazzles with three ingenious vignettes – a brief bad trip where the girls become Barbie dolls, Dever underwater in a pool (echoing both The Graduate and Boogie Nights) and Feldstein in a charming musical dance sequence.

The film is also very sweet and dare I say, uplifting. 

Masterful fun.  One of the best of the year.